Sustainable chemical management is a critical component of a healthy and circular future. In its second annual report, the Chemical Footprint Project (CFP) revealed encouraging advances across industries towards the use of safer materials and greater transparency.
Sustainable Brands spoke to Tim Greiner, co-founder and Managing Director at sustainability consulting firm Pure Strategies, one of the founding organizations behind CFP, to find out more about how chemical footprinting and the CFP are helping companies elevate the conversation internally and externally on chemicals management and establish roadmaps for success.
What is the state of sustainable chemicals management?
Tim Greiner: Chemicals management has been a compliance-focused effort for a long time within companies. This has involved ensuring that legal requirements are met from what chemicals are allowed to what specific levels are permitted and what warnings or notifications are needed. However, the needed progress to reach a healthy and sustainable economy cannot rely on the often slow-to-catch-up processes that many regulations are.
The good news is that companies are shifting to chemicals management approaches that are based on continuous improvement and moving to safer materials before there are regulatory requirements. A key part of this is less reliance on a risk framework and more focus on inherent hazard — understanding that if we can prevent the hazard to begin with, then we don’t have to manage the risk. This has led companies and retailers such as Walmart, CVS and Bed, Bath and Beyond to develop restricted substances lists (RSLs) and identify safer substitutes across product categories.
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There is also notable progress toward greater transparency. We see this primarily in the formulated products industries, such as beauty, personal care and home care, where companies are disclosing product ingredients beyond what is required by law, including providing information what was previously considered confidential business information (e.g., fragrances). What had previously only been seen from leading companies, such as Seventh Generation, now is being taken on by companies such as Walmart requiring suppliers to disclose ingredients.
Further, for many years, chemicals lacked a means for internal and external stakeholders to track corporate performance and program effectiveness (e.g. like CDP does for greenhouse gas emissions). The annual CFP survey of 20 questions on chemicals management and chemical footprinting fills that gap.
You mentioned Walmart's work in advancing sustainable chemistry in home, personal care, and cosmetics products. How has participation in the CFP helped Walmart with these efforts?
TG: Walmart chose to participate in the CFP survey for the first time this past year to benchmark their ongoing efforts to advance supply chain transparency. Early into Walmart’s journey to more sustainable chemicals, they established a way to gather information about product ingredients. This enabled them to understand the chemistry being used in products across different categories and focus on key areas for improvement, such as removing 96 percent of “high priority chemicals” by volume weight from the products sold in Walmart U.S. by 2017. More recently, Walmart established a goal “to reduce its consumables chemical footprint for Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club U.S. stores by 10 percent” by 2022.
With this progress under their belts, participating in the CFP survey helped Walmart answer the questions, how does our program compare to best practices, and what else can we do to advance progress? The tool has proven to be valuable for advancing Walmart’s and others’ efforts in sustainable chemicals management; and Walmart, as a signatory to CFP, will encourage its suppliers to also participate in the survey.
How are CFP and chemical footprinting helping elevate sustainable chemicals management?
TG: Before CFP, companies did not have an objective way to understand what a sustainable chemicals management program should look like. One of the biggest gains from CFP is that companies have an external framework to assess their program and discuss it internally. Further, there is the adage, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” A metric for sustainable chemistry has been missing and CFP helps outline that metric by defining a way to quantify chemicals of high concern, or the chemical footprint.
Another game-changing benefit from CFP is that it provides the investor and purchasing communities a way to understand corporate chemicals management. Investors, for example, have the responsibility to understand and mitigate risk with their assets and they know that value can decline without sustainable chemicals management — as was seen with Sony years ago with cadmium in its Playstations, and Lumber Liquidators and formaldehyde in their plywood products. Participation in the CFP and scoring well are indicators that a business understands its risks and has a management strategy and the components of a sustainable chemicals management program in place. Investors with over $2.3 trillion in assets are signatories to CFP and are looking at the survey results.
Chemical footprinting is also elevating sustainable chemicals management within supply chains. When Radio Flyer began their chemical footprinting journey with their suppliers, they found that they were the only company asking chemical questions of their suppliers beyond regulatory requirements. The conversations required education about why Radio Flyer was interested in this information and what they were going to do with the information. This process yielded not just information about the chemicals in their supply chain, but it also strengthened the connection to their suppliers and their suppliers’ suppliers.
How does Pure Strategies support companies interested in advancing their sustainable chemicals management program and utilizing CFP?
TG: We customize our approach for each company’s needs and have found that companies often build and implement their programs with three main steps: The first is establishing the strategy itself, the focus of the effort, and gaining alignment within the business. Whether it is R&D, supply chain, sustainability or quality, it is important to know what improvements are expected. Common topics to tackle include: If a policy applies to all products or a certain set of products, a certain class of chemicals, and how to assess alternatives. While it may be an obvious need, when a chemical is replaced or removed, the alternative needs to be safer. However, alternatives assessment approaches are often missing in chemicals programs. Another common gap is a measurable target. A chemical footprint is a powerful approach that companies are beginning to leverage to help clearly track and communicate progress.
Once a company has established its strategy and goals, the next step to look at how the strategy will be executed and goals will be met. Data underpins much of this, and while CFP has found that many companies have systems in place, it is often insufficient to advance progress. There may be information gaps in certain ingredient types (e.g., mixtures, article parts) or with upstream suppliers. This is why verification mechanisms need to be in place, such as testing and chemical footprinting.
The third step in deploying a program is engaging externally. Key to this is disclosing ingredients and reporting progress. In addition, there may be opportunities to collaborate with industry and civil society to advance sustainable chemistry objectives. The CFP survey is a tool that supports both areas as it provides a means for companies to share their progress and demonstrate to other companies that this is a priority for action and how to move forward.
We bring the CFP survey to companies for the discussed reasons. When we helped Walmart participate in the CFP survey their first time, it informed ways they could advance their efforts, aligned with their aims to measure their progress with a chemical footprint, demonstrated their leadership position, and let other companies gain awareness of the value of the tool.
Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share about the role of chemical footprinting?
TG: The ability to measure and track progress in chemicals management through the chemical footprint metric is transformational. For a critical aspect of a sustainable economy that lacked a metric, there is now a means to set measurable targets and clearly communicate status. The chemical footprint can do what carbon footprinting did for greenhouse gas emissions. We are already seeing this with the progress of leading firms such as Walmart and Radio Flyer. This comes at an important time because sustainable chemistry is a piece that often is lost when talking about a circular economy, but we can’t get to a truly circular economy without it also being a clean economy. The last thing we want to do is take a product that has a toxic chemical in it and put it into another product, exposing consumers to the harmful materials multiple times. As we drive towards a circular economy, the focus on sustainable chemistry is an important part of that journey. Chemical footprinting and the CFP help advance that concept and as a result, play a key role in helping us reach a healthy and circular future.